Child-parent centers boast strong results for kids, investors

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Staff at Peck Elementary's child-parent center offer English classes for students' parents, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico. Here, parent Nereida Dejesus works on reading activities with teachers Lucina Sosa and Leticia Alvarez.

Photo by Max Herman

Staff at Peck Elementary's child-parent center offer English classes for students' parents, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico. Here, parent Nereida Dejesus works on reading activities with teachers Lucina Sosa and Leticia Alvarez.

Peck Elementary Assistant Principal Angel Aguirre says it’s easy to tell the difference between the kindergartners who attended preschool at Peck’s child-parent center and those who didn’t attend preschool at all.

The kindergartners who went to preschool are able to sound out words. They know their numbers and are emotionally prepared to handle separation from their parents. What’s more, he says, the parents are more involved in their children’s education and better able to help them at home.

“The students are ready for kindergarten on Day One,” Aguirre says.

That’s why Peck staffers weren’t surprised at the first results from a social impact bond project that expanded child-parent centers across the city: More than half of the children met kindergarten readiness standards last year. As a result, the private investors who put up $16.6 million for the four-year expansion will earn a $500,000 “success payment” — or $2,900 for every child who met the standard.

Chicago’s experiment in social impact bonds ties repayment to academic outcomes—better scores on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy tests, and fewer special education placements—for children who attend the child-parent centers. Small class sizes, extra professional development for teachers, requirements for parent participation and additional wraparound support from Metropolitan Family Services are part of the program.

The first evaluation, obtained by Catalyst through a public records request, shows that overall, 59 percent of the 374 children in the first group met or exceeded national averages for kindergarten readiness. (See our accompanying story for more details on the social impact bond.)

Results mirror other research

Arthur Reynolds, project director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study and the Midwest Child-Parent Center expansion project at the University of Minnesota, says the kindergarten readiness results are “in line with what we know about the impact of high-quality preschool programs and what we know about the CPC program in general.”

In fact, evaluators from the nonprofit SRI International research firm used a more rigorous standard for Chicago’s project than Reynolds has in his own research. SRI evaluators deemed children “kindergarten ready” only if they met or exceeded national standards on five of the six areas that are part of the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment, which is given to all children in publicly funded preschools in Chicago. Reynolds has used a benchmark of four of the six standards.

“The fact that 59 percent of the kids—low-income, vulnerable kids—are meeting this very high standard is very positive,” says Reynolds, who is researching a separate expansion of child-parent centers that’s being funded through a federal Investing in Innovations (or i3) grant.

City officials said they were unable to provide any comparable data on the performance of other children in Chicago’s preschools on that same assessment. But Reynolds’ research has shown that the percentage of children in child-parent centers who meet kindergarten readiness standards is 20 points higher than the percentage of children in other types of preschool programs.

Paying for full day

Private investors in Chicago’s social impact bond project are paying for half-day preschool slots. But about one-third of the children in the first group actually got a full day of class because CPS is absorbing the extra costs at some sites.

Research shows that children who attend preschool for longer hours do better academically. The district’s financial cushion means less risk to investors.

“Are the investors better off or the kids better off?” asks Jose Cerda, spokesman for IFF, the nonprofit organization that’s administering Chicago’s social impact bond.

The SRI evaluation showed the difference: 67 percent of children who attended full-day preschool were considered kindergarten ready, compared to 55 percent of those in half-day programs. Either way, both groups surpassed the 50 percent cap that triggers the success payment to investors.

For the children, however, the difference is huge, says Aguirre. Children from full-day preschool at Peck are significantly more advanced than their classmates.

“One kindergartener is so ahead that I had to move him into first grade for reading instruction,” Aguirre says “It’s one of the new issues we’re having to deal with. It makes us wonder what would happen is all our preschoolers were in the full-day model. What would that look like?”